The rumble of a jet might be the signature sound of modernity, evidence that we’ve taken possession of even the sky. The noise is almost inescapable. There have been many times in the backcountry when I’ve had a moment of solitude broken by the dull roar of a jetliner–in the Central Sierra especially, as westbound jets headed for the San Francisco Bay Area begin their descent. I’ll be at an alpine lakeside, at dusk, remembering that the forest’s most common sounds are nothing more than the rustle of wind and the ripple of water. Then I hear the bass thrum of a plane and the moment is over, the wilderness’s natural stillness broken by an engine.
This wasn’t an issue earlier generations of conservationists had to deal with. The first commercial jet flight occurred just six years before the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, and the term “jet set” had only recently been coined. Then air travel became commonplace. From 1970 to 1997, the number of jet flights in the United States tripled. Today, if you include commercial jets and small craft, about 8 million planes take off in the United States each year. That’s more than 20,000 flights a day.
It’s not just planes, of course; the clatter of civilization is so commonplace that it has become, literally, background noise. Still, it affects us. The hum of our electronics, the beeping of a freight truck, the never-ending whoosh of cars streaming down the freeway–all of it adds up to a sort of sonic pollution. Health researchers have established that noise pollution disturbs sleep, affects heart functions, reduces productivity, provokes anxiety, and intrudes on cognition. Biologists have shown that humanity’s din also messes with the internal harmonies of wild places, the “biophony,” as it has been called. Birds can become confused by all of our sounds, making it harder for them to hear their young (though some urban birds have adapted their calls, changing the pitch to compensate for the cacophony of the city). Whales are disoriented by the sonar blasts from naval vessels, the drum of freight ships, and the reverberations from underwater oil and gas exploration. Human noises clutter even the soundscape of the deep.
In a little more than a century, we have changed the pitch of the planet. Bernie Krause, a musician and naturalist who has spent four decades recording the sounds of the biological world, warns that we are acoustically crowding out the sounds of other animals and birds. “A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening,” he has said.
All of this racket adds to my feeling of claustrophobia, my concern that the world has shrunk too small. There are, supposedly, just a dozen places left in the continental United States where one can sit for 15 minutes without hearing a human-created sound. Not one of those places is east of the Mississippi River; you can’t find a single such location in all of Europe.
One of the last silent places is the Hoh Rain Forest at the center of Olympic National Park, in Washington State. The absence of human sounds there is so profound that, according to an article I had read, the silence feels “like scouring sand.” As soon as I heard about such a place, I wanted to go there. I wanted to experience the deep quiet of a place never breached by the noise of chainsaw or bulldozer. So I set out with my lady, Nell, for the farthest corner of the Lower 48 to search out what I imagined would be a kind of sonic oasis.
Getting to such a remote location is no small task. To arrive at the far side of Olympic National Park we had to make a circuitous, five-hour trip from the college town of Bellingham, Washington, and through the bustle of islands that make up the Salish Sea–highway to ferry to highway again. Along the way we passed the landmarks that form the working landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Mountain ridges clawed with clear-cuts. Clouds of silver steam rising above the oil refineries in Anacortes, where giant tankers unload crude from Alaska’s North Slope. Trucks piled with logs, bound for the pulp mill outside of Port Townsend or the industrial docks at Port Angeles: American trees, destined to be made into furniture in China.
As we went deeper into the timberlands of spindly, second-growth tree plantations, we began to see signs opposed to a proposed expansion of the park. “No New Wilderness.” “No National Park Expansion.” “Working Forests = Working Families.” A useful reminder, I thought, of how every nature preserve is contentious at some point in its history. Conservation is always a tough call in the moment; only in hindsight does the decision to protect part of the wild world seem obvious.
When we arrived at the Hoh Valley Visitor Center, I asked a park ranger sporting a fantastic walrus mustache about the signs. The center was going to close in five minutes, but he was a generous type, and offered to explain. “That’s a big question,” he said. “Let’s sit down.”
We settled onto a sofa in front of a huge window with a view of the surrounding rain forest. “They say the wilderness has no value,” the ranger told us. “But look at that parking lot out there. It’s full. It’s full almost all year round. A lot of people spent a lot of money to come here. And some of that money they spent coming through those logging towns. I think this forest has a lot of value.”
I’d agree. Outdoor recreation is a multibillion-dollar business that creates real economic benefits. You could call it the ecosystem service of keeping the tourist dollars flowing. But I didn’t travel all that way to explore the financial arguments for wilderness preservation. I was looking for something different in the promised silence. I was going into the deep forest to explore tougher questions. Does a place still have value even if it is of no obvious use to humans? What’s a wild place worth for everything that doesn’t walk on two legs?
On our first day in the rain forest, Nell and I covered a decent bit of ground: 11 easy miles along the river’s edge, which we took at a gentle pace. To get up onto the shoulders of Mount Olympus, though, we would have to work.
As we climbed out of the rain forest and into the beginnings of the montane ecosystem, the landscape changed. The trees spread apart and great pastures of sword fern carpeted the halls of spruce and fir. As we hiked, our footfalls echoed through the perfect symmetry of the groves.
Flowers appeared. There had been few flowers in the depths of the rain forest, but now, as we climbed into the air and the light, color arrived on the scene: bright pink fireweed in the rocky areas, the big white umbrella of cow parsnip and billows of leatherleaf saxifrage in the cuts. It was as if altitude had channeled time, and we had entered a miniature version of the Cretaceous explosion–that moment some 130 million years ago when, without warning, flowers burst into being.
At one point the trail went along a steep ledge where the mountainside dropped off sharply to the right. Suddenly we were hiking among the treetops. The massive firs were rooted somewhere down below–even craning over the ledge we couldn’t see their base–and then rose up a hundred feet and more until the tree crowns met us at eye level. And there we discovered that the arboreal heights were full of life. Vast clouds of tiny white moths fluttered among the needles and cones, tens of thousands of moths, probably more.
Later, checking my field guide, I would learn that the creatures are called “pine whites.” They lay their eggs at the highest reaches of conifer trees and spend most of their lives there. In the moment, though, unequipped with any scientific knowledge, I found the sight spellbinding. All of the air was aflutter, the whole scene was blinking, and my eyes couldn’t keep up. It felt like the day had been put under a giant strobe light. The swirl of moths was so thick and so fast that the image of the world quavered, as if nature’s signal were coming through too strongly and had overloaded the picture.
We stood and looked for a good couple of minutes with unchecked wonder. Then it hit me: These small white moths had been here all along, even when we were unaware of them. Most of the time, their tiny niche in the world goes unnoticed by humans. They can spend their whole lives beyond our gaze: hatching, breeding, eating, dying far above our heads. I thought of a line from Thoreau: “What we call wildness is a civilization other than our own.” I thought of Edward Abbey, his observation that the wilderness is “a realm beyond the human.” The wild stuns us with the reminder that most of existence occurs without anyone paying attention.
“Most members of the land community have no economic value,” Aldo Leopold wrote. “Wildflowers and songbirds are examples.” As are pine whites. We can live our lives quite comfortably without them–without even knowing they exist. They could disappear from the face of earth and their demise would likely go unheralded.
But a species’ instrumental value to humans shouldn’t matter. Those pine whites have an intrinsic value. They have a worth in and of themselves, even if it appears that they’re good for nothing. For a being to live independent of humans is, in some ways, the essence of wildness. The pine white lays its eggs in the tops of fir trees. It flits about among the needles and branches. We do not care. We do not even notice. And so the moth demonstrates its self-will. Unlike the hog or the broccoli or the hybrid tea rose, the pine white isn’t embroiled in any dance of domestication with us. The moth exists without our permission.
Take a minute to consider the interests of a moth, and it becomes evident that every landscape is a working landscape. It’s just that the landscape may not be working for us. It’s working for itself–for the continuation of evolution. No matter how small a being’s ecological niche, that being has a right to continue living, if only to serve the greater good of evolution unfolding.
This doesn’t mean that every species has a right to exist forever. Evolution’s a bitch, and extinction is the unavoidable fate for most everything on the planet, including us. But each species possesses at least the right not to be snuffed out by humans.
Unfortunately, on that score we’re not doing very well. Biologists warn us that we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction. On five other occasions in the history of life on Earth, some dramatic event–a sudden spike in carbon dioxide levels, an asteroid hitting the planet–has caused a massive die-off of species. Today a similar die-off is occurring. Scientists estimate that a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are on their way to oblivion, percentages that are much bigger than the historical average. Amphibians are going extinct at a rate 45,000 times higher than the historical rate.
We humans are the primary cause of the disappearances. Our ever-spreading development chews up wildlife habitat, while the pollution from our factories and cars heats up the planet and causes further dislocations. It’s not just the scale of the changes we are making on Earth’s systems, but also the speed at which we are doing so, a phenomenon that has been called “The Great Acceleration.” Our technologies outpace species’ abilities to respond and react. According to journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, “now we’re the asteroid.”
If any stratigraphers are examining the fossil record eons from now, the abrupt disappearance of biodiversity will be among the clearest signs of the Anthropocene. The impoverished fossil record will show that we humans had become the greatest evolutionary force on the planet. We’re sort of like a one-trick Shiva, practiced only at destruction.
To destroy a species forever is a crime; to do so thoughtlessly makes it something closer to a sin. Of course, it’s impossible to mourn what you do not know. The wilderness is important, then, because it reminds us of the all the life we normally never see. Pine whites, for example: nothing more than tiny, little moths that can enlarge the scope of our sympathies.
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man by Jason Mark, and is published here with permission from the author.
Photo of Hoh Rain Forest by Chris Vreeland.